Beaver Farm. I drive past the sign and pull up. Mike has been standing at the gate waiting for me to come home. He has jet black hair and a wrestler’s build. I wind the car window down as he opens it for me. “Hi Guy!” he says. His greeting is so full of warmth and enthusiasm that it always makes me smile. Mike watches me park and disappears inside.
I come into the house and throw my laptop bag onto the chair. Simon immediately tracks me down and starts asking me questions about his day. “What did we do in the garden this morning?” “What did you do this morning, Simon?” I ask, falling for the prompt as always. “Dig in the greenhouse…life is good at Beaver Farm” he replies. Simon loves work. His biggest fear is that he might have to spend a day sick in bed, not because he minds the discomfort but because he hates not getting things done.
Roger arrives home from an afternoon of furniture building in the wood shop. He is a six foot two amateur naturalist with a particular love for hippos: he can watch them for hours at a time at the zoo. “What’s for supper?” he intones. It is a rhetorical question because he already has his head in the fridge and is making sure that his gluten and casein free foods are on the table.
While Camphill Special School serves a broad range of children with special needs, my personal experience over the years is that there has been a tremendous increase in the prevalence of autism. This year we live with eight young men: seven of them are “on the spectrum”. There has been a raging debate in the press over the increase in incidences of autism. Is it a question of previous under-reporting of cases? Is the diagnosis over-used? Is there really more autism in our population than there used to be? What are the causes? Do environmental factors play a role? Is the increase due to vaccinations? Is it because of allergies to food stuffs or gastrointestinal problems?
Whilst these are important and engaging questions, beyond the obvious dietary issues they have little relevance in our daily lives at the farm. Our lives revolve around the very pragmatic issues that arise for those living with autism.
The majority of our students struggle with something often referred to as “Kanner’s autism”. Named for the doctor who first identified the characteristics associated with it, this form of autism provides a number of quite significant challenges to the children and adults who have to live with it.
Imagine living a life where social interactions are awkward and painful for you. You find it hard to read the emotions and intentions of others, and the uncertainty makes you anxious. Perhaps you find it hard to understand what people are saying: the words blend together and become pure noise. Maybe you understand, but can’t formulate a spoken response. Sense impressions are overwhelming. You have to press your hands to your ears to shut out sound. You close your eyes to avoid having to absorb such incredible detail in the images of your surroundings.
This is the world my young friends live in every day. It is the world their families have to learn to navigate. Some may assume that they want to avoid social contact, or that autism turns people into robots or empty shells filled with obsessive behaviors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Autism may become a barrier that prevents a painful world from becoming unbearable, but the individuals living with it crave meaning, love, humor and companionship as much as anyone else.
Some young men and women with autism come to us because they have been “acting out”. Often this means that their behaviors have been socially unmanageable, or that they have been too violent and aggressive for the classroom. They may be sad and depressed, or just plain angry with the world. Given the obstacles they face and the fear and anxiety they live with it is no wonder that aggression or depression are common experiences. Our job is not to “fix” anyone. Education at Beaver Farm begins with immersion in daily life. We live together. We work together. We celebrate together. We do these things slowly and gently and carefully. The first lesson for everyone is trust. The second is that it is alright to let go a little, to put your guard down. The third lesson is where the fun begins: work!
Our life together at Beaver Farm is predictable and rhythmic. That’s the wonder of life on any farm. The sun comes up, the rooster crows, the cows stir in their stalls. The livestock needs food and water, the barn needs mucking out, the eggs need picking. In spring we plant the garden and sow the fields. Lambs are born and the sheep are sheared. In summer and fall we harvest vegetables and grains, make hay and stack the maws. In fall we split firewood and put the garden to bed for the long winter ahead.
The predictability is natural, reassuring and life affirming. The calendar of festivals we celebrate is cyclical, punctuating the year with hidden joy and meaning. Living with the land adds another dimension to our gatherings and festivities. We light a fire in the creek to welcome in the summer solstice and carry candles into a spiral of light to ring in the dark days of winter.
Our young men and women learn to work the land. They learn to cook and process what comes from their labors too. Lunches are a remarkable experience of community. Given our obvious predilection for order, everyone prefers to sit at the same table every day, and begin the meal with a familiar grace. The serving of food that has been carefully grown and meticulously prepared is always a moment of grace, and for our youngsters the act of dining is almost sacred.
If this sounds too bucolic to be true, it is because a piece of the story is still missing. Life with autism tends to be more restricted than most people are used to. Spontaneity often has to be eliminated. Routines have to be maintained, even when change might seem like a breath of fresh air. Conversations tend to be highly patterned and scripted making it difficult to elicit anything but the most perfunctory information. The longing to really know what is going on in the life of our friends with autism is never fully satisfied because they may not have the communication skills to express what they experience.
There are also times when things go wrong. The educator the student expects to meet is sick, the much anticipated event is cancelled because of a snow storm or some small variable in the environment triggers fear and anxiety. That’s when Mike bites himself so hard he draws blood. It’s when Simon puts his foot through the drywall in his bedroom, kicking so hard his shoe emerges through the wall in the room next door. Such unexpected changes lead to screaming, and stamping and head banging. These events are always hard to witness, and for family members they can be extremely traumatic. For the person with autism they are moments of rage and loss of control and terror. Living with autism is a little like walking a tightrope: predictability keeps you on the straight and narrow but any sudden change can cause a catastrophic fall. Community is the safety net.
Everyone longs to a part of a community. Community is built when people have a genuine interest in one another. It can’t be based on power, or expertise, or efficiency. Communities emerge slowly when people want to be together. Contrary to popular wisdom, those with autism seek to live a shared life as much as anyone else. Their autism won’t dissolve as a result. There really are no magic bullets. What does happen is that life begins to have a purpose.
Our students know that they are needed. They know their work carries value and that their opinion has weight. They know that they will be listened to, and that they will be able to find a way to speak. By offering themselves they learn to receive. Friendships become spaces of safety and stability. Through a rhythmic life and through patience and warmth, youngsters with autism can gain the courage and resilience to manage new experiences and face the world.
By Guy Alma, Director of Development